When I moved to Brooklyn what feels like ten lifetimes ago it was the hottest, thickest portion of July. In the bathroom of my new apartment an ominous black mold crept across the ceiling like sponge-paint, thriving in the dense humidity. In the kitchen my feet stuck to a mysterious blue substance that no manner of elbow grease could remove, and there were cockroaches, droves of them, their burnt-sugar-shells lounging in the drains and scurrying across the walls (sorry I never told you this, mom and dad). That first night there was a ground-shaking thunderstorm—not the kind that you cuddle up against, the kind that actually terrifies you. I bought a frozen pizza and a bottle of wine only to remember that the gas hadn’t yet been turned on so I couldn’t use my oven and that I had left my wine-key behind in my former apartment. I bought a honey-dipped donut from the deli next door, sat on the grey-blue carpet of my bedroom floor and cried myself exhausted.
The next morning I pulled myself out of bed early and immediately set to scrubbing, scraping and bleaching. Opening my kitchen window to air out the smell of cleaning chemicals I noticed for the first time a delicate green vine creeping and curling along the bricks of my building and wrapping itself around the fire escape. Even though it was too early for the plant to bear any fruit, I recognized it immediately as a concord grape vine. There was a house on the street where I grew up that was covered on one side by concord grapes and my friends and I spent many a crisp fall afternoon gorging ourselves on them. They are one of the only fruits that truly taste like their artificial imitation, which is one of the reasons I loved them so much as a kid—they tasted like Dimetapp cough syrup and Welch’s grape jelly and purple Bazooka gum, eating them always felt like something I shouldn’t be doing (and seeing as I was stealing them from a neighbor’s yard that feeling was probably pretty valid).
Maybe it’s from the five months I spent in college writing a thesis on food imagery in Toni Morrison novels but I rarely eat grapes without thinking of her. Nobody can make produce sexy quite like Toni Morrison can—her plants sway their hips, her fruits swell and bloom, her berries run over with juice. Grapes make an appearance in almost all of her novels—in Beloved there is Mr. Garner’s grape arbor which only yields “grapes so little and tight. Sour as vinegar too.” Sethe wraps Beloved in muslin and lays her down to rest in the arbor’s cool shade. In Song of Solomon Pilate makes wine from piles of grapes and the women eat the leftovers with hot bread and butter. In Paradise statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary are strangled by overgrown grapevines and in Jazz there is the river Treason, surrounded by hills covered in wild grapes. My favorite of all of Morrison’s grape passages, however, takes place in The Bluest Eye, when Cholly and Darlene chase each other through a field of muscadine.
The object of the walk was a wild vineyard where the muscadine grew. Too new, too tight to have much sugar, they were eaten anyway. None of them wanted—not then—the grape’s relinquishing of all its dark juice. The restraint, the holding off, the promise of sweetness that had yet to unfold, excited them more than full ripeness would have done. At last their teeth were on edge, and the boys diverted themselves by pelting the girls with the grapes. Their slim black boy wrists made G clefs in the air as they executed the tosses. The chase took Cholly and Darlene away from the lip of the gully and when they paused for breath, Jake and Suky were nowhere in sight. Darlene’s white cotton dress was stained with juice. Her big blue hair bow had come undone, and the sundown breeze was picking it up and flittering it about her head. They were out of breath and sank down in the green-and-purple grass on the edge of the pine woods. Cholly lay on his back panting. His mouth full of the taste of muscadine, listening to the pine needles rustling loudly in their anticipation of rain.
The grapes in this passage are ripe with possibility and promise—tasting their sourness is simply a reminder of what sweetness will eventually come. When I started seeing concord grapes in the market a few weeks ago I immediately thought of this passage and that lonely, homesick time that feels so long ago now, when the grapes outside of my window signaled to me not only respite from the heat of summer but also a time when this apartment might finally feel like my home. The grapes on my fire escape are long gone now, my crazy landlord came at them with a weed-whacker one day, convinced they were causing a bee infestation (I cried then, too), but my excitement over seeing them in the market hasn’t faltered. This sorbet is a perfect way to enjoy their sweet, musky flavor. The lemon cuts the grapes’ sweetness and the wine makes their flavor a little more grown-up than the grape Popsicles of your childhood. It is perfect on its own, in a cocktail or sopped up with olive oil cake (which is what I did–yum!)
If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, don’t fret! Just make sure you have a good blender (a food-processor doesn’t quite work the same, and gets very messy). Simply freeze your base until it is solid, blend it in the blender until smooth and re-freeze. I made two rounds of sorbet and actually preferred the texture that this method yielded to the ice cream maker version.
- 2 1/2 pounds concord grapes, stemmed
- Juice of half a large lemon
- 10 Tablespoons corn syrup (this keeps ice crystals from forming. You can sub 6 Tablespoons of mild-flavored honey or sugar if you don’t want to use corn syrup)
- 4 Tablespoons red wine
*You will also need a food-mill and cheesecloth
Place grapes in a food mill and process until all of the juice is released. Pour the pulp left over in the food mill into a piece of cheesecloth and ring until every ounce of juice is released (you can skip this step if you want, but seeing all of that juicy, useable pulp in the food-mill really bugged me). Whisk corn syrup, lemon juice and red wine into grape juice and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until mixture just comes to a boil. Chill base thoroughly and spin according to your ice-cream maker’s instructions (if you don’t have an ice-cream maker use the method given at the top).